18th Century Shipbuilding

Throughout the long series of battles which decided the supremacy of the British naval power - between 1750 and 1805 - British ships were notoriously said to be inferior to those of France and Spain. Critics charged that class for class, Britain's enemies' ships were larger, sailed better, carried their guns higher out of the water, and accommodated larger crews than Britain's. Many of these ships were captured and became British men-of-war; but, owing to the Admiralty regulations which limited the dimensions of each class, British shipbuilders were seldom allowed to profit by the improved models.

For several years after the death of Queen Anne on Aug. 12th, 1714, the number of ships belonging to the Royal Navy showed no increase, but rather a slight diminution. Nevertheless there was, even in those days, an increase in the total tonnage. But, from the death of George I onwards, the Navy grew enormously. There was no tendency to add to the number of the first and second rates-vessels which were only useful for special purposes, and which, as late as the middle of the eighteenth century, it was customary to lay up every winter. Of the third, fifth, and sixth rates, and of the sloops, on the other hand, increasingly greater numbers were built.

George the First increased the size of the ships of the several classes, and took vigorous measures riot only to build and rebuild ships, but to repair those left in a bad state by his predecessor.

George the Second still further increased the size of the ships; and added to their numerical force. It was during his reign that the practice of building 80-gun ships on three decks was discontinued, and those of 60 and 50 guns were no longer considered of the line; At the demise of George the Second it was found that the navy had been doubled in real force during his reign.

The ships were much increased in size during the early part of the reign of George the Third, and the constant naval warfare carried on caused a more than ordinary attention to the fleet. In 1783, it was determined that copper bolts and copper nether hinges (called pintles and braces) should be substituted for those of iron ; as it was apprehended that several ships had foundered at sea ' from the oxidation of the iron bolts, in consequence of the ships being copper sheathed ; this was then attributed to the iron being a less pure metal than copper; for it remained for the master-mind of a Davy to discover the physical law, that when two dissimilar metals are in contact, and also with sea water, that a voltaic effect is produced, which occasions a rapid corrosion of the more oxid- able metal, while the other remains perfect.

The system of rating men-of-war had been, until the reign of Anne, somewhat irregular. Up to the eighteenth century, 64's and 70's were classed as second-rates, 60's as third-rates, and 30's and 32's as fourth-rates. The line-of-battle ship classification of 1690 into 90, 80, 70, 60, and 50 gun vessels lasted until after the Seven Years' War. For the first half of this period there was a gradual increase in dimensions. It ranged from 1,100 tons to 1,550 in the 90-gun class, the lower classes being correspondingly raised, with a tonnage difference between each class of some 200 tons.

First rates ...710,953711,703712,94559.95S
Second rates...1119,4471319,3231320,12.51322.825
Third rates ...4751,9884247,7084047,95871109,494
Fourth rates .6242,9406951,3796450,754i;367,901
Fifth rates ...3011,4694219.8362715,0055439,173
Sixth rates ...153,611246.475279,7606131,618
175 140,410 197 156,444 178 156,607 270 280,909

The first half of the eighteenth century witnessed repeated efforts to establish un-varying standards of size, tonnage, and armament for each of the classes of men-of-war then in most general use. At least two of these efforts - those of 1719 and of 1745 - met with considerable success ; and the rules tentatively adopted in each of those years were for some time largely, though not exclusively, adhered to in the construction of ships. But it was probably discovered that to aim at rigorous uniformity was to check improvement; and, after about the year 1755, all efforts in this direction were wisely relinquished.

First-rates were vessels of 100 guns or upwards on three complete decks ; second-rates, of from 90 to 100 guns on three decks; third-rates, of from 64 to 84 guns on two complete decks; fourth- rates, of from 50 to 60 guns on two decks; fifth- rates, of from 30 to 44 guns; and sixth-rates, of from 20 to 30 guns. These were captains' commands. Smaller vessels, classed as sloops, were commanded by commanders, and still smaller ones, such as gun-brigs and bombs, by lieutenants.

The third rates were the vessels which experience showed to be, upon the whole, most serviceable for the line-of-battle. The fifth and sixth rates were the ships with which the country found it could best deal with the enemy's cruisers; and the sloops were the natural foes of small privateers, and the natural agents for the general policing of the seas. That the number of fourth rates did not increase is attributable to the gradual discovery of the fact that fifty and sixty-gun ships, while too small and light for the line-of-battle, were too large and heavy for ordinary cruising purposes. They continued to be built in small numbers, chiefly because they were suitable craft for service in the colonies, and, as flagships, on the less important stations, in war, and almost everywhere in peace; and, because they continued to be built, they occasionally found their way into the line-of-battle. But occupying, as they did, an intermediate position between the line-of-battleships and the regular cruisers, and belonging positively to neither, their value was limited in both directions.

The Navy Board scale of dimensions of 1719 officially fixed that existing tonnage dimensions in each class were to be considered as the limits. Much harm to efficiency resulted, for shipwrights were practically compelled to stand still, regardless of the advances other nations made, notably the French and Spaniards. Even before 1719 the French had been building superior vessels, class for class, to any the British had. In 1704, in fact, the Navy complained that the French 50-gun ships (to take one class only) were larger than English sixties, of better shape for speed, and better able to hold the wind.

Matters got much worse after the ordinance of 1719, with the result that in 1745, when the British were at war with the French, we had Admiral Knowles writing to Anson at the Admiralty: "Our 70-gun ships are little superior to their 52-gun ships." Brtitish 90-gtm ships, indeed, a Spanish officer described as "three-deckers on the dimensions of two-deckers."

Progress in matter of size was more conspicuous after the commencement of the eighteenth century than it had been up to the end of the reign of William, when there was no vessel of more than 1,700 tons burthen in the Navy. Before the death of George II., a first-rate (the Royal George), of 2,047 tons; a second-rate (the Sandwich), of 1,869 tons; a third-rate (the Valiant), of 1,799 tons; and a fourth-rate (the Chatham), of 1,052 tons, had been built. Thus, in the course of about fifty years, the new fourth-rates had grown to be as large as the old third rates, and the new third-rates to be even larger than the old first-rates.

Bitter complaints were repeatedly made of the crankness [as instability was then known] of British ships. In blowing weather, when British slower sailing fleets had their only chance of coming up with the enemy, while the batteries of the enemy's ships were "always open," the British were unable, because of the crankness of the ships, to open the lower deck ports, or use the heavier guns at all. The weak scantling of the ships, less vital perhaps when navies retired every year bodily into port between October and April, was a serious defect now ships kept the sea all the year through. Another vital defect was the light metal of the ships, under the existing system, compared with the enemy's heavy broadside armaments.

The weight of armament of most of the rates had increased proportionately. For example, a 90-gun second-rate of 1716 threw 1,606 lbs. of metal, but a 90-gun second-rate of 1745 threw 1,684 lbs.; a 70- gun third-rate of 1716 threw 1,056 lbs., but a 70-gun third- rate of 1745 threw 1,480 lbs.; and a 50-gun fourth-rate of 1716 threw 642 lbs., but a 50-gun fourth-rate of 1745 threw 840 lbs. Similarly, the strength and weight of all gear increased. The weight of bower anchors was, for instance: for a first-rate in 1706, 74 cwts., in 1747, 81 cwts.; for a second-rate in 1706, 66 cwts., in 1747, 73 cwts.; for a third- rate in 1706, 49 cwts., in 1747, 58 cwts.; and for a fourth-rate in 1706, 36 cwts., in 1747, 49 cwts.

The tendency throughout the eighteenth century was to cast off, both within and without, the elaborate decorations hitherto in fashion on ship-board. The Admiralty order of 1703 led the way, by directing the excessive bow ornamentation of scrolls and emblematic devices to be confined to plain figure-head with moulded trail-board, doing away at the same time with the heavy gilt-work brackets encrusting the stern-lights. The gilt wreaths round the upper deck ports and the carvings in relief, till now universal, went at the same time; also the hitherto customary gilt mouldings within board, for which was substituted a plain deal lining devoid of ornament. Canvas screen bulkheads, too, were now substituted for the carved wooden frame bulkheadswhich had been usual. The upper works above the quarter-deck tier continued, during the century, to be gaily adorned with royal cyphers and emblematic devices, painted at first on a band or ground of bright red or blue, and later on dull blue; but gradually the devices became less and less ornate, leaving only a plain band of blue along the upper works, which, in turn, vanished when the black hull of the " Nelson mode " came in.'

During the eighteenth century heavily built stern galleries were universal, a triple tier in first-rates, a double tier in 98 and 9o-gun ships, a single tier in seventy-fours and sixty-fours. These galleries began to be discarded at the beginning of the present century in third-rates-and soon after in all ships under 98 guns- for closed glassed-in stern-lights. The stern galleries grew more simple in first-rates, until, finally, only a single plain stern-walk aft of the upper deck cabin was found in the largest ships of later types.

The well-known lion figure-head which during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries adorned the prows and beak heads of English war-ships, was, by the order of 1703, made the official man-of-war badge (except in cases of first-rates, which were given a highly-adorned equestrian effigy of the reigning monarch). This red or gilded lion remained the typical man-of-war figurehead till near the end of the eighteenth century, when it began to be replaced by brightly-coloured full-length effigies emblematic of the ships' names ; a style that in its turn yielded, when the round bow and " Nelson mode " of painting came in, to the plain white bust or three-quarter length figure-head.

The British man-of-war of the time was in every way an inferior craft - narrow in beam, lean bowed, and so deficient forward in bearing that pitching and rolling in rough weather imperilled the masts. The 100-gun ship of 1745 had a gun-deck of only 178 feet, compared with the 165 feet gun-deck in the l00-gun ship of Charles II.'s time. There was this to be said for our ships: when we chased the French, if their fleets contained ships originally taken from us, the slowness of these invariably insured their lagging behind and consequent recapture. Our quondam French prizes at the same time always led in chase, and were practically the ships we relied on to catch the enemy with.

So serious did the situation become, that, though Britain was at war, a committee of flag-officers and Commissioners of the Navy had to be convened to consider the matter. New designs and suggestions for ships of all rates were called for from the dockyard master-shipwrights, but with poor results, for, as a fact, no one seemed capable of improving on the 1719 scale. Fortunately a man like Anson was in authority, and at his instance the captured ships that we had at our disposal were turned to for models.

The French and Spanish battle-ships of the day were seventy-fours and sixty-fours - vessels designed with dimensions proportioned to their armaments. Taking these two classes for exemplars, to save time and expense a number of 9o-gun three-deckers were first cut down to two decks and a half, and given 74 guns. And then we set to work to build seventy-fours and sixty- fours of our own. The building of sixties and seventies, except those already advanced on the stocks, was at the same time stopped, and the inefficient 8o-gun three- deckers were abolished. How the Navy profited, those who served in the War of the Austrian Succession, and later in the Seven Years' War, discovered.

The Seven Years' War (1755-1762) saw the introduction to the service of a class of vessel which, for nearly a hundred years afterwards, was of the highest value. This was the regular frigate, built to cruise at good speed, and carrying a reasonably heavy armament on one deck. There had previously been no vessels that thoroughly fulfilled this ideal. The forty-four, and even the forty-gun ships of an earlier date were cramped two-deckers ; and below them, until after 1745, there was nothing more formidable than the wretched twenty-gun ship, carrying nine-pounders as her heaviest weapons. Genuine frigates, mounting twenty-eight guns, began to be built about 1748 ; but still no larger gun than the nine- pounder found a place in them. The twelve-pounder thirty-two- gun frigate appeared at about the same time, the earliest examples being the Adventure (1741), and Diana, Juno, Southampton, and Vestal (1757). Then came the twelve-pounder thirty-six-gun frigates, the best British fighting cruisers of the days before the accession of George III. The first of these, the Pallas and the Brilliant, were built under the superintendence of Sir Thomas Slade in 1757. Yet even they were inferior to thirty-six-gun frigates which were in possession of the French at about the same time.

With the Seven Years' War came in first the frigate class of the orthodox type; a vessel, that is, carrying her armament on one deck and built for independent cruising at a high speed. Hitherto, since the Constant Warwick, there had been nothing between the cramped, heavy sailing 44-gun two-decker of 850 tons, and the weakling 20-gun ship, a pigmy with popgun armament. The new, swift 28 and 32-gun frigates (601 and 706 tons respectively) supplied a real need, and these "eyes of a fleet" from now on find a place in the British Navy. A larger class, the 36-gun frigate (728 tons), was at the same time experimentally introduced, but only three of these were built.

It was at about the same time that the experiment of coppering ships' bottoms to preserve them against the worm was first officially tried in the Navy. In 1761, the Alarm, 32, was so treated, but, although the effect was found to be satisfactory, the general introduction of the improvement was impeded for several years, owing to the galvanic action which was set up between the copper and the iron bolts of the vessel's hull, and to the evils which this action wrought. The difficulty was ultimately got over by using only copper fastenings in the under-water portion of ships' hulls; yet it was not until 1783 that this measure of precaution was ordered to be generally adopted, and, until then, copper sheathing, while applied to specimens of every class of ships, was very far from being universal in the service.

As with the seventy-fours, the British took frigate models from the thirty-sixes and thirty-twos captured in the war. After the Peace of Paris, for economical reasons, sixty-fours came into favor, though seventy-fours continued to be built. Their average tonnage was-the sixty-fours, 1,436 tons; the seventy-fours, 1,790; a marked advance on the old seventies and sixties of fifteen years before, of which some were still among the ships in ordinary. Even the discarded 80 gun three-decker had been of no more than 1,615 tons. The day of the sixty-fours was not to last long. When the American War broke out they were numerous, especially in British over-sea squadrons ; but the Navy condemned their small size, and turned attention exclusively to seventy-fours. Henceforward for fifteen years the seventy-four was the ideal fighting ship for the line of battle.

To fill the gap between the 74 and the three-decker 90 and l00-gun ships, after the disappearance of the old eighties-the new eighties on two decks did not come in till 1793 - the 96-gun class was created; at first by the expedient of adding eight quarter-deck guns to existing 90-gun three-deckers, of whose light broadside complaint had been made. Later, after 1788, a class of ninety-eights larger than the converted nineties was built, which lasted until after 1815. But the 98 was never a success, and was looked upon as an illegitimate sort of three-decker, introduced as a cheap substitute for regular three-deckers, such as the 104 and the 110-gun ship.

By this time (1795) our pioneer no-gun first-rate (100 guns for a century and a half had been the limit in armament) had been launched, the Ville de Paris, named after Rodney's famous prize. Nine years later came a second, the Hibernia, and four years after that Britain sent afloat her first 120-gun ship, the Caledonia. It was, however, against British policy to build monster craft of such overpowering armament, though they were to be found in other navies of the time. The Royal Navy preferred, taught by experience, a numerical preponderance of ships of medium dimensions - the 74-gun ship class, to wit. In fact, 120 guns remained the limit in armament for first-rates down to 1850.

The gradual increase of dimensions since the day of the Royal William, of ninety years before, is noteworthy. The Royal William, by the way, was 1,918 tons, as compared with the two typical first-rates of the preceding century, Sovereign of the Seas, 1,547 tons, and Britannia, 1,703 tons. Then came in the Navy Board rules of 1719. Compare, for example, the Royal William (of the year 1719) with the 10o-gun ship Victory of 1737 (lost in the Channel, 1744), of 1,921 tons (174 feet length, sojfeet beam, with 20 feet depth). Little more is the difference between the Victory and the Royal George of 1756 (Kempenfelt's ill-fated ship), of 2,041 tons (length 178 feet, beam 51^ feet, depth 214- feet); and not much more between the Royal George and the next bi^ first-rate, the Victory of 1765 (Nelson's famous flagship), of 2,164 tons (186 feet length, 52 feet beam, 21 feet depth).

The old trammels in dimensions still held in the 100-gun Royal George of 1790 (built to replace Kempenfelt's), of 2,286 tons-an increase on the Royal William of seventy-one years before of only 365 tons. The I ro-gun first-rate Ville de Paris, of 2,351 tons, for her increase in armament, was little larger. Then came the i2O-gun ship, Caledonia, of 2,616 tons (length 205 feet, breadth 54 feet, depth 23 feet), in which a tendency to advance first appears. The proportion of length to breadth observed in the first-rates during the century and three-quarters between the Sovereign of the Seas and the Caledonia was, taking extreme limits, in the Sovereign 3^46 to 1, in the Caledonia 3'82 to 1.

In 1793, just as the old nineties had been converted into seventy-fours some of the still existing old sixty-fours were cut down a deck, or " razeed " (a term that now came into use) into forty-fours. With the 53-gun two- deckers, of which there were still a number, these forty- fours formed a class of heavy cruiser, by themselves, a link between the line-of-battle ship and the frigate, that was useful for convoy and general service in distant seas.

The war with France saw marked changes in frigates. The 36-gun class, re-introduced successfully about 1780, became, with the old thirty-twos, the favourite cruisers of the day until ousted by the larger thirty-eights and forties (of 900 and 1,000 tons), which came in after 1793. By capture Britain acquired, in addition, some very smart 44-gun frigates, the crack class in the French navy, which proved ideal craft. The limit in frigates was reached in the 50-gun frigates of 1,572 tons, of the year 1813, that were specially built-in addition to the 5Ogun cruisers converted for the occasion from "razeed " seventy-fours - to cope with the American so-called "frigates."

It was really only in the Great War that the Royal Navy first began to proportion dimension to armaments, and that but tentatively, learning the lesson at last after scientifically comparing ships captured with British ships of the same rate. It was startling to find, taking the case of one class only, that French eighties were bigger and better than our ninety-eights or, indeed, than some British first-rates. Certainly the superiority of foreign models had been acknowledged long before, even earlier than Anson's time; but, tied down by the bonds of the Navy Board restrictions, they had proved practically useless to British shipwrights. As with line-of-battle ships so with frigates ; the prizes the fortune of war and better seamanship gave us after 1793 (such as the famous Forte, 40, of 1,400 tons) were revelations to our shipwrights. The lesson, if, perhaps, to some extent lost, owing to the restrictions in dimensions still enforced, was now sufficiently taken to heart.

The average cost of men-of-war in Nelson's time - coppered, masted, and rigged, but excluding armaments - is worth noting: loogun ships, each, 67,600; 98-gun ships, 57,120; 80-gun ships, 53,120; 74-gun ships, 43,820; 64-gun ships, 35,920; 50-gun ships, 25,720; 44-gun ships, 21,400; 38-gun ships, 20,830; 36-gun ships, 19,070; 32-gun ships, 15,008; 28-gun ships, 12,480.

Join the mailing list